Review: The Shadow Line 1×1

It's not HBO, it's BBC2. Or is it David Lynch?

The Shadow Line

In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2. Available on the iPlayer

Writer/director/producer of BBC2’s new thriller The Shadow Line, Hugo Blick, would have us think of BBC2 as the UK’s version of HBO. Aside from the fact that there aren’t nearly enough repeats or boxing on BBC2 for that to be true, I’m not entirely convinced that just looking at drama – or even just as The Shadow Line – that you could make that mistake.

Sure, it’s got a good cast, including Christopher Eccleston, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lesley Sharp. It’s beautifully directed and concerns the kind of difficult subject matters that HBO used to be associated with, including drug dealing and contract killing. There’s the occasional bit of swearing, too, although nowhere near the levels of The Wire or Al Swearengen in Deadwood.

One might even stretch a point and say that although HBO doesn’t really do “Lynchian weird”, the general weirdness of The Shadow Line pales into insignificance compared to the weirdness of John from Cincinnati, even if that show was somewhat unique in HBO’s history.

But arguably, as a drama, The Shadow Line is so slow-moving, so off the wall and so anti-realistic, “BBC2 is the UK’s AMC” would be more accurate.

Here’s a BBC clip, because the BBC in their wisdom haven’t bothered to stick any decent trailers on YouTube. Sorry, US readers.

In the first episode, DI Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has just returned to work after being shot on an undercover job; his partner was killed and Gabriel suffers amnesia with a bullet lodged in his head. He leads the police investigation of the murdered drug baron Harvey Wratten and finds himself in a race with the other side of the line, the drug dealers who want to know who killed their boss.

Thriller drama also starring Christopher Eccleston, Rafe Spall, Lesley Sharp and Kierston Wareing.

Is it any good?
As mentioned, the writer/producer/director of The Shadow Line is Hugo Blick. As a producer, he’s excellent. Look at the cast. Look at the budget. Look at the fact it’s filmed in London and the Isle of Man. That’s excellent producing, that is.

As a director, Blick is fabulous. Every scene is perfectly composed, although he does have a marked tendency to go monochrome with every scene – “In this scene, I will mainly be using the colour red. In the next scene, I will mainly be using the colour yellow. In the next scene…” and so on.

However, as a writer, he is intensely, intensely irritating. Naturalism is not a Hugo Blick trait, he seems. There’s barely a line of dialogue in the entire first episode that you could imagine the characters as portrayed making. It isn’t realistic, it isn’t hyper-realistic, it isn’t Tarantino-esque, it isn’t even theatrical.

It’s Blick either being a bit mental or showing of – I can’t decide which. It’s the kind of dialogue that involves human beings not behaving like human beings, going on grand elliptical journeys, concentrating on tiny little details of everyday life to the exclusion of anything plausible.

Indeed, a lot of the action is like that, too. Imagine drug dealers that are intensely polite and nice and give out business cards. Imagine thugs that make pig noises to wind up other thugs but don’t get suspicious when those other thugs get into the lift with them. Imagine police officers going on grand verbal journeys to avoid using the c word to insult other cops who merely want to check an ID card – when they’d just use the c-word in real life. Imagine police officers taking bribes but having the bribes posted to their wives, instead of taking them with them.

You don’t have to – Hugo Blick already has.

Frustrating though the dialogue and indeed much of the plot of this first episode is, it’s actually quite an engrossing show, once you enter this weird parallel universe Blick has constructed for us. We have Christopher Eccleston as a drug-dealing florist with an Alzheimer’s wife (Lesley Sharp) trying to cope with the assassination of his former drugs boss.

Meanwhile, Chiwetel Ejiofor is investigating said assassination after just returning to work, having had a bullet lodged in his brain. He has amnesia and can’t remember much about when he was shot.

Who shot the boss? Why? And why’s Ecceleston’s replacement boss not here yet? No one’s seen him for over a month. Could it be that Ejiofor is actually the new boss but can’t remember it? What does it all mean? Why should I care?

As I said – Lynchian.

So despite the frustrations involved, I’m probably going to watch the next episode as well, just to see where it’s all going. If it turns out to be accidentally weird, I’m going to be sorely disappointed, but if it’s all deliberate, this could be a fun ride.

  • God I’m so stupid, I hadn’t even thought that Gabriel could be the missing boss – there are enough clues, what with his fabulous walk in wardrobe and all that dosh he found there – but you are forgetting the son. Although, if it’s a bluff, he isn’t the son…
    It wasn’t just slow moving, the dialogue was really mumbled/muted – and that opening bit with the coppers finding the body. Puh-lease, I nearly turned it off I was so bored. It just went on and on and on… But like you say it is strangely compelling and Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp and Chiwetel Ejiofor were excellent. I did wonder though, if Gabriel has been so dodgy why his wife can’t simply tell him what he’s been up to – she must suspect someone doesn’t get so many natty suits just being in the Met…
    Will probably watch again, but not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

  • As indicated we loved it in this house. Its unrealism was so beautifully constructed we couldn’t resist. I’m hoping to stay the trail.

  • stu-n

    The new boss’s son had a picture of his dad on his sideboard, and as it was Anthony Sher, I’d imagine he’s going to turn up sometime.
    I was very intrigued. Didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I liked the feeling of only-just-restrained violence. ‘Jacobean’, some critic said. Which I suppose means you can’t trust anyone and everyone’s likely to kick your head in at some point. But I know what you mean about Blick’s writing: very, very mannered, even more so than Troy Kennedy Martin.
    I’ll watch this week’s, then decide whether or not to record the next two while I’m away.

  • I love it. It’s beautiful. As for the dialogue not being realistic, have you never met Film Noir before?

  • MediumRob

    “I love it. It’s beautiful. As for the dialogue not being realistic, have you never met Film Noir before?”
    I have thank you. And were the dialogue on a par with The Maltese Falcon’s or The Big Sleep’s, that would be a valid point. It’s not. It’s largely laughable.

  • SK

    I think I had a similar reaction to you on all counts.
    What really gets me about the dialogue is the sustained metaphors stretched to breaking point — I laughed out loud at ‘If he goes with you, he goes on mute.’
    And there was one exchange — that I can’t remember offhand — that switched metaphors so fast I got linguistic whiplash.
    But I will watch episode two: as you say, bizarre but somehow engrossing.
    As opposed to, say, Rubicon, which is far more believable but not half so compelling.

  • Watched episode 2: loved it even more. Sorry to those who don’t like it’s arch-ness, but the sound editing alone deserves an award —- “heightened” scarcely covers its style.

  • Electric Dragon

    I wasn’t sure about ep 1, but ep 2 was great, really tense, pacy, taking a small element of the plot and fashioning a brilliant chase sequence out of it. Also, Stephen Rea, effortlessly managing to out-sinister everyone else in the cast.

  • Robert Bendell

    I’m sorry, but I love this program-and all your complaints about bits that are ridiculous make sense if you think about them for a while. The drug dealers aren’t just dealers, they’re lords-you don’t get that powerful without mastering diplomacy. The thug never thought that innocent-looking Jay Wratten (sorry if I got the spelling wrong) could pose a threat to him, these coppers are meant to be very, very clever-unlike normal coppers. And the police officer that wouldn’t take the money with him said ‘Me and prince Charles-we can’t carry money.’ This is probably because he’s already under investigation for taking bribes.
    To be fair, no one could call this naturalistic-everyone speaks very slowly, and they never get interrupted-but the storyline makes perfect sense.
    Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound like a rant-I’m a massive fan of the blog, keep up the good work.

  • Steve Warnes

    This has become very silly indeed. You would need a team to keep track of the multiplots that are being hatched endlessly. It feels like the writer or producers have made a list of all the things that people might like on TV and endeavoured to get them all in this. Similarities with The Killing seem too obvious to me and they are not done very well. I will watch the rest as I have invested so much time to date but I know I am going to be disappointed in the end. They simply will not tie up all the ends. Oh and what happened to strong or even visible normal women in this series.

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